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European space policy; Historical perspective, specific aspects and key challenges

Written by Vincent Reillon,

Space Station

© Atlantis / Fotolia

In the 1950s, development of the space sector in Europe was limited to investments made by individual Member States (France, Italy, the United Kingdom). The failure of the first European partnerships in space activities in the 1960s led to the establishment of the European Space Agency (ESA), an intergovernmental institution, in 1975. ESA allowed Europe to develop its capacities by supporting the upstream space sector: designing and developing European launchers, developing an emerging satellite industry, and implementing programmes for space science and space exploration.

In the 1980s and 1990s, two evolutions triggered European Community involvement in the space sector. On the one hand, space capacity and infrastructure led to the development of a downstream space sector (telecommunications, satellite navigation, and earth observation services) that impacted on European societies. On the other, the Community progressively acquired competencies in additional policy areas and played a stronger role in regulation of the space sector.

At the turn of the century, the European Commission established links with ESA, developing a joint space strategy in 2000, and a space policy in 2003. The Commission also developed flagship space programmes: Galileo for satellite navigation and Copernicus for earth observation. These programmes were funded by the European Union (EU) and developed in collaboration with ESA in the framework of the 2004 agreement between the Union and the agency. European space policy was updated in 2007, dividing roles between ESA (upstream sector) and the EU (downstream sector).

In the following years, the security and defence aspects of space policy, space infrastructure security, autonomy and access to space, and the ‘non-dependence’ of the European space sector gained importance. The Commission developed an EU industrial policy for space, and set up a programme on space surveillance and tracking (SST) to protect European space infrastructures. Discussions began on the opportunity to set up a programme for governmental satellite communications (Govsatcom). These new initiatives were integrated in the European space strategy adopted by the European Commission in October 2016.

The introduction of space as a shared competence between the EU and the Member States in the European treaties in 2009 gave the Union a stronger role in the field. The asymmetry between the EU and ESA in terms of membership and voting rights, financial rules and uptake of security and defence matters implied an assessment of their roles and their relationship. Different options for ESA’s development were discussed between 2012 and 2016 to address the situation, but no decision was taken.

The governance of European space policy is shared between the EU, ESA and the member states. This situation provides the latter with a certain degree of flexibility. Nevertheless, it creates inefficiencies in areas such as support for research activities in the space sector, development of international relations, and implementation of European space programmes.

In an evolving environment where the private sector is developing strong capacities and playing a more active role, the EU, ESA and their member states face key challenges if Europe is to keep its position as a space power: maintaining independent access to space, increasing efficiencies by developing synergies between civil and defence space programmes, securing space infrastructures, ensuring uptake of space data and services, and adopting a long term vision and financial commitment to increase private investment in the sector.

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